Who Lost Osama?
From the April 12 / April 19, 2004 issue: Richard Clarke is far tougher on the Clinton failures than advertised.
Apr 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 30 • By DANIEL C. TWINING
By 1995, the Clinton administration had witnessed the World Trade Center bombing, for which it had "a lot of evidence" pointing to bin Laden's organization. It had discovered Ramzi Yousef's plots to assassinate President Clinton and Pope John Paul II. It had learned of Yousef's plot to blow up eleven American airliners over the Pacific. It had witnessed a terrorist assassination attempt against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. And it had seen the hand of al Qaeda at work in Bosnia, which Clarke calls "a guidebook to the bin Laden network, though we didn't recognize it as such at the time." According to Clarke, "There were signs in 1995 of [bin Laden's] money and support in Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines, Egypt, Morocco, and in Europe. Rumors connected him to attacks in New York, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen."
SO, ACCORDING TO CLARKE, "Clinton talked incessantly about what it would be like if terrorists used a weapon of mass destruction to attack a United States city." Between late 1995 and April 1996, Clinton gave a series of speeches about the terrorist threat. Equating the threat to that we faced in World War II and the Cold War, the president said, "Terrorism is the enemy of our generation, and we must prevail." In 1996, the work of a newly created bin Laden station at the CIA revealed a "widespread and active" al Qaeda organization with bin Laden as its "mastermind." In 1996, Clarke's Counterterrorism Security Group was already developing plans for a covert operation to snatch bin Laden from Afghanistan.
This is where things stood at the end of Bill Clinton's first term as president. Clarke succeeds in demonstrating that, by 1996, the administration was deeply aware of the threat al Qaeda posed, and that Clinton himself was "seized with" the issue. The administration was putting in place a domestic program to respond rapidly in the event of a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction. The administration had conducted covert operations against suspected terrorists and was discussing an operation to snatch Osama bin Laden himself. In short, Clarke successfully makes the case that the administration was fully engaged and ready to take the offensive against al Qaeda--by the end of Clinton's first term.
So what happened? It is true that the bureaucracy failed Clinton in some ways, but the more complete answer is that the president was unable to impose his will on a reluctant government, including his senior cabinet officials responsible for national security affairs. Unlike their successors in the Bush administration, they were not willing to risk other American interests, and public and world opinion, for the sake of defeating al Qaeda--and unlike President Bush, President Clinton was unwilling to force the issue. In November 2001, after he left office, Clinton said, "I tried to take bin Laden out . . . the last four years I was in office." He must be judged by the fact that he failed.
CLARKE BLAMES in particular the CIA's professed doubts about their authorization to use lethal force against the terrorists. In Clarke's words, "I still to this day do not understand why it was impossible for the United States to find a competent group of Afghans, Americans, third-country nationals, or some combination who could locate bin Laden in Afghanistan and kill him. . . . The president's intent was very clear: kill bin Laden. I believe that those in the CIA who claim the authorizations were insufficient or unclear are throwing up that claim as an excuse to cover the fact that they were pathetically unable to accomplish the mission."
Yet the president and his national security cabinet made accomplishing the mission difficult. As Clarke explains, "In three meetings during 1998 and 1999, the [Counterterrorism Security Group] requested emergency meetings of the principals to recommend to the president a cruise missile strike on the facility in which bin Laden was believed to be at the time." The missiles were never fired. CIA Director George Tenet later confirmed that bin Laden was present at the suspected site on one of those occasions; yet each time fear of collateral damage or considerations of subsidiary American interests prevented the administration from pulling the trigger.
Again and again, Clarke proposed attacking bin Laden's training camps, whether or not the terrorist mastermind was confirmed to be there, telling his colleagues, "We have to stop this conveyor belt, this production line. Blow them up every once in a while and recruits won't want to go there." But the principals objected--for reasons as diverse as wasting million-dollar missiles, undermining U.S. credibility with Pakistan, burdening a stretched military, and reinforcing a perception abroad of the United States as a "Mad Bomber." The administration ruled out an assault on bin Laden's farm in Afghanistan, for fear the CIA's Afghan assets could be killed in the attempt.
CLARKE WANTS TO GIVE the Clinton administration credit for trying. It did recognize the threat, he insists; it did engage in serious strategic planning to counter it; the threat did consume the president and his senior staff. "Listen," Clarke quotes Clinton as telling his national security staff after the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, "retaliating for these attacks is all well and good, but we gotta get rid of these guys once and for all. You understand what I'm telling you?"
And yet, somehow, little came of all this. The Clinton administration failed to coerce the weak and failing states of Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to capture bin Laden. Without elaborating, Clarke calls reports that Sudan was prepared to hand bin Laden over to the United States for the right price "a fable" invented by "Americans friendly to the Sudan regime." He also tells us that it was impracticable to seize bin Laden in Sudan, where the administration knew his whereabouts. National Security Advisor Tony Lake ruled out a proposed Special Forces operation against al Qaeda facilities in Sudan on the grounds that, in Lake's words, "This is going to war with Sudan." According to Clarke, the CIA "had no capability to stage significant operations against al Qaeda in Sudan." On Clarke's watch as counterterrorism czar, the United States apparently never acquired that capability.
Later, Clarke tells us that the State Department was "hard at work trying to put pressure on the Taliban" to close terrorist camps and hand over bin Laden. "Unfortunately, we had little leverage with the Taliban." The mullahs wouldn't cooperate, and the Clinton administration threatened them with nothing more than negotiations. On Pakistan, Clarke observes, "I believed that if Pakistan's [Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate] wanted to capture bin Laden or tell us where he was, they could have done so with little effort." Did the United States, under Clinton's leadership, have so little leverage over other nations on an issue it had identified as a top national priority? President Bush demonstrated otherwise--in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.
Clinton was committed to defeating terrorism, Clarke insists. But his administration could not or would not deliver. "Whether it was catching war criminals in Yugoslavia or terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, it was the same story," Clarke adds. "The White House wanted action. The senior military did not and made it almost impossible for the president to overcome their objections." An attempt to catch September 11-mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Qatar in 1997 failed because the administration felt obliged to inform officials in Doha, one of whom promptly warned Mohammed to flee. An attack on an al Qaeda meeting at which bin Laden was present failed when, as Clarke himself had predicted, Navy destroyers positioning to fire their cruise missiles were detected by Pakistan, which may have warned bin Laden to clear the area before the strike.
CLARKE BLAMES most of this on the failure of the CIA, FBI, and the Pentagon to cooperate with the Clinton administration. Clinton "identified terrorism as the major post-Cold War threat," but "could not get the CIA, Pentagon, and FBI to act sufficiently to deal with this threat."
Is he right? During his long years as the nation's counterterrorism czar, working for both Clinton and Bush, Clarke never put in place a workable system to screen airline passenger manifests--yet was shocked to learn, on September 11, that known terrorists had freely boarded American airlines. After al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, killing seventeen American sailors, Clarke proposed the United States bomb every al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. "There was no support for bombing [within Clinton's national security cabinet]. . . . The principals had decided to do nothing, to wait for proof of who committed the attack." Clarke quotes his colleague, Mike Sheehan, as asking, "What's it gonna take, Dick? Who the sh--t do they think attacked the Cole, f--in' Martians? The Pentagon brass won't even let the Air Force carpet-bomb the place. Does al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?"
THE ANSWER would appear to be yes. Clarke reports actually seeing Osama bin Laden in Afghan training camps on three occasions in real time as he watched live video from a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle hovering over the sites. Each time, U.S. military assets were not in a position to fire on bin Laden, and the Predator was not armed with missiles to conduct an offensive strike, as it would be during the Bush administration.
Clarke later criticizes the Bush administration for failing to push aggressively for deployment of Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles before September 11. Yet he also quotes a report that the head of the CIA's directorate of operations opposed use of the armed Predator against bin Laden on the grounds that it would "endanger the lives of CIA operatives around the world." And in a White House meeting one week before September 11, Clarke cites a source quoting CIA director Tenet as saying, "It would be a terrible mistake for the [Deputy of Central Intelligence] to fire a weapon like this."
So who is at fault? In 1998, al Qaeda issued a statement declaring war on the United States Clarke writes, "It did not come as a shock to us. We had considered ourselves at war with al Qaeda even before we knew its name or its reach."
Yet despite the continuing string of attacks, and intelligence warning of more to come, Clarke doesn't blame Clinton. Says Clarke,
Because of the intensity of the political opposition that Clinton engendered, he had been heavily criticized for bombing al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, for engaging in 'Wag the Dog' tactics. . . . For similar reasons, he could not fire the recalcitrant FBI director who had failed to fix the bureau or uncover terrorists in the United States. He had given the CIA unprecedented authority to go after Osama bin Laden personally and al Qaeda, but had not taken steps when they did little or nothing. Because Clinton was criticized as a Vietnam War opponent without a military record, he was limited in his ability to direct the military to engage in anti-terrorist commando operations they did not want to conduct. . . . In the absence of a bigger provocation from al Qaeda to silence his critics, Clinton thought he could do no more.
Clarke lost his access to the president when the Bush administration came to power. His principal complaint is that the Bush team's focus on Iraq after September 11 diverted America from the war against al Qaeda. Yet it was Clarke who, by his own admission, authored the founding document of Clinton counterterrorism policy in 1994 underlining the threat of terrorists' acquiring weapons of mass destruction and stating that the United States had "no greater priority" than preventing it--an argument the Bush administration employed in its decision to go to war against Iraq nearly a decade later, at a time when terrorists had demonstrated their ability to attack the United States and were actively seeking weapons of mass destruction, which Iraq had a demonstrated record of producing and using.
GIVEN WHAT EVERY SERIOUS intelligence service in the West believed it knew about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction capabilities, the Bush administration's decision to go to war was a prudent response to what, by Clarke's own standard, constituted a credible threat to the United States in an age of catastrophic terrorism.
Clarke's argument that the Bush administration did not accord the terrorist threat sufficient priority before September 11 is not wholly fair. The Clinton administration had eight years to deal with the threat; the Bush administration eight months. It is by this gap that the Bush administration's early counterterrorism policy must be judged.
The challenges facing any new administration--appointing and confirming senior staff, conducting broad-ranging policy reviews, and generally getting its sea legs--as well as the Bush administration's determination to set a course in foreign policy radically different from that of its predecessor, may have hindered a clear assessment of the threat al Qaeda posed to the United States. During their first months in office, officials who had been out of office for eight years may not have had the same sense of urgency about terrorism as Clarke, who had spent every day of those same eight years watching the terrorist threat spread. Unquestionably, the Bush administration, once it fully grasped the threat, acted decisively to end it. The Clinton administration did not.
Clarke himself points out that a memo he prepared for the incoming Bush administration listed key antiterrorist initiatives that the Clinton administration had not agreed to take. "The [Clinton] principals had asked me to update the pol-mil plan for the transition, flagging the issues where there was not a consensus, where decisions had not been agreed." By Clarke's own admission, the Clinton administration had not done these things. Had they, the Bush administration may have found themselves confronting a significantly reduced terrorist threat. As it happens, Republican officials were putting in place these very policies when the terrorists struck on September 11.
In the final chapter of Against All Enemies, Clarke suggests that Clinton, were he still in office after September 11, would have tried to "understand" the phenomenon of terrorism; tried to build a "world consensus" to address its root causes; tried "one more time" to forge an Israeli-Palestinian settlement; gone to Saudi Arabia to "address the Muslim people" in "a moving appeal for religious tolerance"; promoted peace between India and Pakistan; and worked to stabilize Pakistan. Hearing Clarke's wish list for American policy at a time when hardened terrorists are killing innocents from Madrid to Bali makes one glad that Clarke has given up his day job.
CLARKE'S DECISION to write what he means to be an indictment of the Bush administration's counterterrorism policy, at a time when the president he served is still in office--and, particularly, to record the president's conversations with him on sensitive matters of national security--is unprecedented. By his act, Clarke has made it difficult, if not impossible, for future presidents to retain senior national security staff members from previous administrations. In Against All Enemies, Clarke laments that political appointees often move aside career national security officials who possess valuable institutional knowledge on national security matters. Clarke's decision to release his memoirs in an election year, and to do so in a way that violates confidentiality and transparently benefits the political opponent of the last president he served, makes it more likely that future administrations will not retain people like Dick Clarke.
The tragedy of recent American politics is not that President Bush acted to end the threat of terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction from rogue states like Iraq, at the cost of angering allies and subordinating secondary American interests. The tragedy is that President Clinton, knowing al Qaeda was at war with us and understanding both its global reach and its plans to kill Americans, did not act in a similarly bold manner.
Against All Enemies is too serious to be called a farce, for it highlights the tragedy of American foreign policy in this age of terrorism. Clarke's deep anger with the current administration notwithstanding, he has performed a service by reminding America of how the Clinton administration failed to protect us from the terrorist threat.
Daniel C. Twining, a former adviser to Senator John McCain, is director of foreign policy, United States, at the German Marshall Fund. The views expressed here are his own.